Kushner at the Shaw
by Anthony Chase
Kushner at the Shaw
A superior production in Niagara-on-the-Lake
I first saw Tony Kushner’s play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at its world premiere in Minneapolis in 2009. It was a grand but sprawling work with flashes of brilliance that became mired down in meandering passages of stagnation.
Since then, the play has been transformed. The script was revised for a highly regarded production at New York’s Public Theater in 2011. Now, under the insightful direction of Eda Holmes, the Shaw Festival is giving this work, by the author of Angels in America, a riveting production with a stellar cast that includes Jim Mezon, Fiona Reid, Steven Sutcliffe, Kelli Fox, and Gray Powell.
Kushner has often been quoted as saying that any good play should teeter on the brink of disaster, like a well-made lasagna. Will it be a prize winning entrée, or will it just be a mess? This play, with countless opportunities to go very wrong, turns out to be a delectable masterwork.
Don’t be intimidated by the title. While Kushner has built the script on philosophical underpinnings, the story is driven by actions and characters. Even at three hours and 50 minutes (with two intermissions) the time seems to fly by. And while the title evokes a socialist essay by Shaw and a theological work by Mary Baker Eddy—the voice that arguably echoes most powerfully through this play is Tennessee Williams.
Like Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which the children of a powerful patriarch are summoned home by the prospect of his death, here we meet Gus Marcantonio, the Big Daddy of a working class family in Brooklyn who wishes to end his own life. Gus, a former longshoreman and communist party activist, has made at least one terrifying attempt to kill himself, and his adult children and their spouses have now assembled to assess his future, and their own.
Also, as in Williams’ play, the domineering patriarch will turn out to have most in common with the son who is most troubled, and whose sexual identity is most in flux.
The play begins with Gus’s older son, Pill, telling his prostitute boyfriend Eli about seeing Shaw’s Major Barbara. He describes the play as “the emasculation of the working class by a sentimental pseudo-socialist, peddling an idealist conception of history.” Naturally, the Shaw Festival audience delights in this irreverent assessment.
The play that follows, however, is far more concerned with existential, rather than economic issues. Arguably, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger is more closely aligned to Kushner’s project than the socialist writings of Shaw. It is interesting to consider that Heidegger’s Being and Time was published in 1927, a year before Shaw wrote The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism. In that work Heidegger tells us that any sense of “having been,” necessarily arises from the future. In their pursuit of their futures, the characters in Kushner’s play are obsessed with the past.
Fascinatingly, the past shared by the members of the Marcantonio family is woven together with the history of the 20th century American labor movement, and the role of three family patriarchs in that struggle. Gus, in particular, is tormented by his realization that the greatest accomplishment of his life, the negotiation of a guaranteed income for longshoreman, was also his greatest failure. The victory only applied to senior union members like himself. In other words, the idea of union was sacrificed, and younger men lost their jobs, so that men like Gus could ensure their own security.
Since then, Gus has watched the march of time erode everything he had accomplished in his life. He tells his children that he wants to die because he has Alzheimer’s disease, but nobody is buying it. In fact, his wily intellect seems to be in full manipulative force, as he plays his family members like chess pieces, and translates Horace to amuse himself. Instead, it seems that Gus is hoping that through his suicide, he can become what he should have been. He can sell his house, divide the money among his children, and align himself with the union brothers he abandoned for the sake of his own guaranteed income. In short, he hopes he can use his future to rewrite his past. He wants to die not because he is forgetting, but because he can’t.
At every level, Kushner complicates the desires of these characters. Living and dying are intertwined with desires to have and to become.
Pill, played with aggravating and entertaining earnestness by Steven Sutcliffe, is in a committed long term relationship with Paul, an African American classics professor played by Andre Sills. While Pill invests his love in Paul, it is very clear that he invests his sexual desires in Eli, a Yale educated prostitute. In fact, Pill has borrowed $30,000 from his sister, Empty, and has entirely blown this breathtaking sum on the hourly affections of Eli. Empty had originally intended to use the money for the artificial insemination of her lesbian lover, Maeve.
The equation between economics and desire permeates every action of the play. For instance, Eli wants Pill to bring him into his marriage with Paul as a triangular arrangement.
Add to that, the fact that Empty (a name derived from Mary Theresa or M.T.) is ambivalent about having a child with Maeve, who is Paul’s former graduate student. In fact, Empty continues to have sex with her ex-husband, Adam, in secret. It’s a secret that’s very badly kept.
Then, we learn that in a manipulative effort to ensure that Empty can never entirely leave her, Maeve has arranged for Vito, the youngest of Gus’s children, to be the sperm donor. Unknown to anyone, however, the insemination was not quite artificial.
For his part, Vito, the sperm donor and the last of the Marcantonio family to be working class, believes that he is going to inherit the family home in exchange for maintaining the building and caring for their father. He’s not.
Kushner keeps all of these narrative threads and conflicting motivations woven together like a shuttle pulling thread through a loom. It’s as if Chekhov had met Mozart. At frequent moments all of the characters speak at once in a cacophony that is as understandable as it is unintelligible.
From this long description (and I’m sorry, but it seemed difficult to avoid), it should be clear to see why the Shaw Festival is well positioned to give this play a superior outing. The talent that has been lavished upon this play is remarkable. Kelli Fox is brilliant as Empty, the conflicted daughter, perfectly forging a woman molded of working class roots and social privilege; she is pure intellect bound by pure emotion. Delicious Fiona Reid brings humor and incisive understanding to Gus’s sister Clio, a former nun and ex-Maoist who summons the children home so that she can escape back to her own life. Ben Sanders is excellent as Eli, the Yale educated hustler, whose final appearance in the play facilitates a perfect and unexpected conclusion to this fugue of insight and conflict. Jim Mezon boldly propels himself into the role of Gus, a man who seems to be entirely transparent but who turns out to be as enigmatic as a sphinx.
Director Eda Holmes weaves this tapestry of American life together with the virtuosity of a master conductor (a thought that occurred to me, I will confess, when I spotted JoAnn Falletta in the audience). Peter Hartwell’s set, a home in Brooklyn, in which generations of a family have lived, and in which their entire past is about to change is a brilliant puzzle of American architecture and projections of the Brooklyn Bridge.
This is the sort of production that has, from time to time, earned the Shaw Festival a reputation for being the finest acting ensemble in the world. Here, with a play that is both worthy of their skill and a worthy tribute to the genius of George Bernard Shaw, they are at the top of their game.
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